Here’s a more specific post on programming various well-known beats.
The brain is a pattern recognition machine. We like repetition and symmetry. But we only like it up to a point. Once we’ve recognized and memorized the pattern, we get bored and stop paying attention. If the pattern changes or breaks, it grabs our attention again. If the pattern-breaking happens repetitively, itself forming a new pattern, we find it super gratifying.
Count to four, over and over again, at a rate of one beat every three quarters of a second or so. On beat one, play a low-pitched percussion sound. This could be a kick drum, a foot stomp, a grunt or ‘bff’ sound, or the bottom of a paint bucket, whatever. On beat three, play a higher-pitched sound: a snare drum, a clap or snap, a plosive syllable like gh or kh, the rim of a paint bucket. This pattern, alternating high and low, will get monotous quickly. To make it funky, you need to introduce some predictable unpredictability. The best way to do that is to change the placement of every alternating bass drum hit. Anticipate it by a beat, or half a beat. Delay it a beat or half a beat. Or do both: play a kick both on beat four and a little before the next beat two. Or just skip every other kick. Maybe also add an extra snare hit in an unexpected place: the very last beat of every other phrase, for instance.
For another layer of texture, add an even higher-pitched sound on every beat, or every half beat. It could be a hi-hat, a shaker, a tambourine, a plosive like ‘ts’, or the metal handle on the paint bucket. Maybe even try doubling up the tempo for a beat at the beginning or end of the phrase. And that should be it for complexity. Cluttering up a beat too much diminishes its power. The silences between the drum hits are as important as the drum hits themselves. Leaving out every other kick drum hit is an effective strategy because the ear fills in the silence by itself, and that imaginative participation is a big pleasure.
There’s a natural tendency to want to immediately start putting in variations, embellishments and fills. We get nervous that the beat isn’t going to be “interesting” enough. It’s true that patterns get monotonous after a while, but too much variation releases the tension that a good pattern can build. If the pattern gets on your nerves quickly, find a better pattern. Rather than let the air out of the balloon too early, you want to pick your symmetry-breaking spots carefully: in the last measure of a sixteen-measure phrase, or even better, a thirty-two bar phrase. Building up lots of tension gives the listener greater satisfaction when it’s finally released. And when it comes time to throw in a variation, using unexpected silences is more attention-grabbing than adding extra sounds. Eliminate the kicks, or the snares, or everything but the hi-hats, or drop the beat out entirely but keep the pulse going, and watch the crowd react with pleasure when the full beat kicks back in.
My musician friends complain that drum machines don’t sound as good as human drummers because they’re so predictable and robotic. I myself have not found this to be true, unless the human in question is a deep Jedi master like Clyde Stubblefield or Questlove. The best drummers are the ones who play the most tightly and predictably. Questlove in particular got to be as good as he is in part by listening to a lot of drum machine music, and striving to sound like one. My friend Doug, one of the best drummers I know, used to leave his metronome on for hours at a time while he did stuff around the house. The beauty of drum machines and the software that emulates them is that they discourage you from needless complexity. They make it effortless to program a two-measure pattern, and annoying to vary or embellish it.
American popular music in all of its varieties mostly agrees about the power of four:
Every beat is four sixteenth notes long.
Every measure is four beats long.
Every phrase is four or eight measures long.
Every section is four or eight phrases long.
Sometimes you see sections that are three phrases long, as in twelve-bar blues. Very rarely a more eccentric phrase length shows up. But most of the music that most of us like here in the western world is based on powers of two. Instead of breaking symmetry totally, you can create extra tension by gently bending the form. You can lay behind the beat or lean out in front of it. You can stretch out every other beat a little, a practice known to musicians as swing. Quality drum programming software lets you bend and stretch time in musical-sounding ways without fracturing the pattern and breaking the spell.